A year ago today, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford completed his political redemption campaign by winning a special election for his former seat in Congress.
It was a convincing 9-point victory over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, recharging a political future that appeared to be over in the wake of his "Appalachian Trail hike" to Argentina story as governor. That was nearly five years ago.
Today, his popularity is set: He is the only member of South Carolina's congressional delegation without opposition this election year.
Last week, Sanford, 53, sat down for a question and answer session with reporter Schuyler Kropf, choosing Page's Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant as the venue.
He spoke about the changes in Washington since his previous term (1995-2001), and on some of the issues he wants to see addressed.
Question: What's changed in Washington between the first time you were there in the 1990s and your return last year?
Answer: "Obviously, a very different security overlay. You used to run up the steps to the Capitol and now there are guys with machine guns with each vote. Not even with each vote, they're just always up there. And then during votes there are many times there will be a full assault team parked out front. They're discreet but they're dressed in black. That's very different but it's noticeable."
Beyond the post 9/11 security changes, Sanford said the budget process has broken down into a pattern of repeat spending, fueled by a reliance on continuing resolutions.
Q: What have you accomplished of significance in the last year?
A: Sanford points to setting up his offices, getting his staff in place and trying to build relationships with a host of new Capitol Hill figures who were not there when he first served.
"This has been a foundation year," he said. "It's been, in essence, building a foundation before you build a house."
Sanford adds that he was also part of the group of Republicans who spoke against what could have been military intervention in the war in Syria, which was among the considerations facing the Obama administration.
"Collectively, we changed what could have been," he said.
Q: You were part of the Republican pack responsible for shutting down the government last fall over the Obamacare fight. It was 16 days of closure where people lost access to their government and services. Thousands of your 1st District constituents were sent home from their federal jobs, and the GOP stand ended in defeat. How can you report any sort of positive effect in what some see as not much more than a stunt?
A: "No. It was a legitimate tug-of-war and Republicans in that case lost on the 'PR' component to the tug-of-war. I think that there was real validity to saying 'We can't continue to go like we're going in Washington.'"
Q: You've got no opposition this year, making you unique among the congressional delegation. Given that freedom, wouldn't you like to go on record now as endorsing Lindsey Graham to go back to the Senate? After all, he is godfather to one of your sons. Or is there another candidate you're backing?
A: "I'm focused on trying to be the best congressman that I can be for the 1st Congressional District. And that's it."
Q: Is there a piece of pet legislation you want to see passed?
A: "National Security Agency reform. I just think that from a liberty standpoint, there's been substantial overreach from what even the authors of the original Patriot Act intended."
(Sanford has sponsored a bill making the NSA Inspector General position a presidential appointment to be confirmed by the Senate as is done in other parts of the federal government's security branches).
Q: What are the two biggest federal issues you'd like to see addressed in the 1st Congressional District during your time in office?
A: Sanford points to sustaining the Port of Charleston through funding and infrastructure concerns.
Q: Who among the GOP presidential candidate contenders is drawing your interest?
A: "I really haven't paid that much attention to it. Obviously, (Kentucky Sen.) Rand Paul, given his liberty leanings, I think has got my attention.
"(Former Fla. Gov.) Jeb Bush. I knew him when I was governor, very pleasantly. I've always been impressed with his work.
"(Texas Gov.) Rick Perry. I knew him when I was governor. At a personal level I got to know him very well and appreciate his kindnesses to me in human terms over the years. Those would be three."
Q: There does seem to be a bit of 'governor' in how you're addressing your job description. Talking about an eight-year-old tax break you opposed as governor for Bass Pro Shops; joining the argument against cutting trees on Interstate 26. Even the jellyfish farm dispute down in Beaufort is drawing your attention. Are you having a hard time letting go? Do you want to run for governor again or is it all just an example of 'all politics is local?'
A: Sanford agrees with former House Speaker Tip O'Neill that all politics is local.
"It's not even like a new concept. (Former Charleston congressman) Mendel Rivers? Are you kidding me? I mean really. That guy was so much more involved in local issues than I'll ever be. It's not even quantifiable."
Sanford said he has no desire to run for governor again.
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, how's Gov. Nikki Haley doing? Do you all ever talk and will you vote for her re-election?
A: "The same thing applies with what you asked about Lindsey Graham, which is: I'm at a stage of my life where I try to focus in on the log in my own eye, rather than worry about any specks in anybody else's eye.
"You're not going to get a critique out of me on what she is or isn't doing because, again, that's not where I'm focused."
Q: Last question. You've been engaged to fiancée Maria Belen Chapur for nearly two years. Are you two ever going to get married?
A: "I'm not going to give news on my personal life."
A year after returning to Congress, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford chats with Mount Pleasant resident Bert Zidlick during a recent stop at Page’s Okra Grill.×
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